Reducing Shame When Seeking Help for Your Family

Given all the obstacles that children face these days it’s easy to understand why parents may choose to hide that they are seeking therapy or psychiatric treatment for their child. It’s one thing as an adult to choose whether to share your diagnosis and treatment. Much more is often taken into consideration when you’re supporting a child with a mental health issue.

The parenting world is fiercely competitive. Many moms and dads work hard to eliminate even the slightest perception of weakness in order to protect their child. Unfortunately, though, a parent’s protection can create shame in their child. This happens if the child interprets needing help as something her or his parents are uncomfortable with.

As much as you want to focus on your child, it’s vital that you are honest and look into any sense of shame that it may bring up in you. Your child will sense this and their issues may be compounded by the belief that they are doing something that is causing you pain.

Worrying About Others’ Judgment

People who’ve been diagnosed with bipolar I or II disorder, schizophrenia, or any depressive or anxiety disorder have strong reasons that they don’t tell many people.

It’s very likely that they’ve endured shaming—intense shaming—by family and friends. Even the way pop culture and the media discuss mental illness is often in a mocking or shaming manner. Anytime a heinous act occurs we are so hell bent on discovering the “why?” and a mental health diagnosis allows everyone else to point a finger and get angry at Mental Illness without taking any cultural responsibility.

But the next question—and the one that every mother and father fears—is, “What did the parent do wrong?”

Your child’s stigma is, sometimes unconsciously, compounded by your fear of how others will be judging your parenting. This isn’t paranoia: People do judge. Until it happened to you and your child you may have even been one of those people.

What I’m saying is that when a parent realizes that their child needs the kind of help that can’t be taken care of by their primary physician, it’s no wonder they’re nervous about opening up that door.

Parents Are the First Teachers of All Emotions

Unfortunately, what this means is that the first place a child will learn about stigma is most likely from their parent.

From early on children are savvy to what information is not supposed to leave the family home, even if it’s not directly stated. From “It’s not anyone’s business but ours” to “You don’t want everyone at school to know that you see a therapist, do you?” there are many ways parents inform a child that getting support for a mental health issue is a Big Secret.

And Secrets mean Pressure. And most kids, especially ones with a diagnosis, have more than enough Pressure.

That a parent and child could benefit from professional support does not mean that the parents did anything wrong.

I’m going to repeat that and use a bullet point. Tweet it if you like:

If you as a parent seek professional support for your child it does not mean that you did something wrong.

Parents would be shocked if they realized how many other parents are getting help—but so few moms and dads are talking.

I had a discussion with a new dad who painfully spoke about how parents will vent, complain, exalt about so many things when they get together, but this man still felt so alone. He felt so alone with a problem that I as a parent counselor hear about all the time.

Not enough parents are saying they just don’t understand why their child is responding in a certain way to particular issues, or being honest about how angry they get with their child, or the sadness and fear of not understanding their child.

Fear of the Bad Seed

It’s inevitable that a weary parent will bring up something like the book and movie We Need to Talk About Kevin or The Bad Seed. I’ve worked with lots of families. Lots of families with kids who’ve been given the title of “Seriously Emotionally Disturbed.” I can’t think of one child or adult that I’ve worked with or heard about that I would say was “born bad.”

Some parents hear blame in that and stigma is about blame. A Bad Seed means they didn’t do anything wrong.

But…there are chemical imbalances, there are traumas, there are traumas that combine with chemical imbalances. There are parents who make poor decisions. There are kids with issues that get in the way of a parent’s ability to connect.

But there is hope to move through this if you’re willing to confront it as a family.

Seeking Support Together

Parents in their quest to shield their children from labels and embarrassment often don’t seek treatment at all or, as I wrote above, make the treatment such a secret that it reinforces to the child that there is something to be ashamed about.

There’s a difference between 1) telling everyone you know that your child visits a shrink and 2) letting the important people in your life know that you as a family are seeking some support because there are issues you’d like help with. There are friends and family members you won’t tell because they’ll reinforce the shame and blame. There are some teachers at school who should know but other issues they don’t need to be told about.

The caution here is really if the message is, No One Must Know.

This reinforces that there is Something Wrong and we are all ashamed of you because of it.

As a therapist I’ve more and more moved away from the model of working just with the child as the client while the parents act more as consultants. There are enough reasons why kids get scapegoated in life. If I’m working with a whole family then already the onus for change has been removed from the child who is often the weakest member of the family system. Sometimes it’s even effective to work with just the parents. Not because they did something wrong or caused the problem, but because often this is where the most effective change happens.

We stay away from blame and everyone gets some responsibility for making the family stronger.

Where’s the shame in that?

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justinlioiheadshotJustin Lioi is a therapist who lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. His clients include parents, new fathers and other adults who are struggling with relationships, anxiety and depression. His sees his job as supporting individuals and families in solidifying what’s right and assisting people in undoing what doesn’t work so well. Justin is a board member of the National Association of Social Workers and is also a clinical supervisor for other therapists. He writes for and is one of their “Topic Experts.”

Justin can be found on  his blog, Facebook and Twitter

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